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Restorative justice referrals decreased last year despite Government promise to build capacity

Restorative justice is a process that facilitates dialogue between victims and offenders.

THE NUMBER OF referrals to restorative justice services – a process that facilitates dialogue between victims and offenders – declined last year despite Government commitment to increase capacity.

New research based out of Maynooth University has found that the use of restorative justice was far lower in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, falling from 721 referrals to 413.

Restorative justice usually involves offering a victim and offender the opportunity to meet each other alongside a mediator. The two parties are facilitated in speaking with each other, allowing the victim to express their feelings and ask questions and for the offender to apologise in some cases.

The process can also occur without the two parties physically meeting each other but instead by exchanging information through a mediator.

In cases that do not involve a direct victim, another approach to restorative justice can involve an offender meeting with figures such as a garda, a probation officer and a volunteer and having a conversation about the harm caused and what can be done to make amends.

The research team behind the data has expressed concern that the volume of cases in 2022 was much lower than in 2019 despite the government committing to increase the capacity for restorative justice. 

“Putting aside figures from the ‘pandemic years’ of 2020 and 2021, we had hoped to see higher referrals in 2022, given the momentum behind restorative justice before Covid-19 hit,” a statement accompanying the figures outlines.

“We must do more to increase knowledge of restorative justice among professionals who initiate and refer cases – such as gardaí, the Judiciary and Probation Officers – if we expect cases to rise in 2023 or 2024.

“We also have to make it easier to refer or assess for restorative justice, and to change mindsets so that offering restorative justice becomes the default, not the exception.” 

In 2009, a National Commission on Restorative Justice recommended to the Minister for Justice that victims and offenders, as well as their families and communities, could all benefit from a restorative approach.

As part of the 2020 Programme for Government, the coalition parties agreed to work with criminal justice agencies to “build capacity to deliver restorative justice safely and effectively”. 

A Department of Justice review of criminal justice policy and penal reform set targets for publishing policy proposals on increasing awareness and availability of restorative justice and agreeing on an implementation plan, but this was only due to start by the third quarter of last year.

At a European level, restorative justice is covered by the EU Victims’ Rights Directive and legal frameworks under the Council of Europe.

Speaking to The Journal, criminologist at Maynooth University Dr Ian Marder said that Ireland is “very far from acting on European legal frameworks to which it signed up.”

“There have been a number of government commitments around this in recent years but the reality is that we need to see investment in services and very public commitments to increasing referrals if we expect restorative justice to thrive in the coming years,” he said. 

The research found that at least 395 referrals were made to restorative justice services in 2021 and at least 413 in 2022.

The equivalent estimates for previous years were 721 in 2019 and 340 in 2020. 

In 2022, 16 of these involved face-to-face dialogue with victims, 49 involved indirect dialogue, and 113 were completed without a victim dialogue.

The process was facilitated by a number of key service providers: The Cornmarket Project, Le Chéile Mentoring, Probation – YPP, Probation – Adult, Restorative Justice in the Community, Restorative Justice Services. 

Dr Marder said that this type of justice is beneficial for parties on all sides.

“We know from research that restorative justice can be a win-win for everyone,” he said.

“For victims of crime, it might be the one opportunity they have to have their voice heard, to say what they want to say, ask questions about what happened, and play a role in decision-making about making good from what happened and having their own needs met,” he said.

“For the person responsible for the offence, we know that hearing about the harm done from those who were affected is a better way that a criminal justice professional communicating that second- or third-hand.

“This is part of the reason why international evidence suggests it can help to reduce reoffending. It also gives that person an opportunity to make amends and can act as a trigger for change or as a stepping stone towards that change.”

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